On Saturday 21 October 2017, I talked to the Hawthorn Historical Society about some of the characters who helped shape Australia’s food history: Australian food heroes if you like. You can see the pictures from the PowerPoint presentation (as a PDF without any words) here. Hover over the image and use the arrows to click backwards and forwards.
Leaving out the introductory bits about me and my connections (or lack of them) with Hawthorn, this is, approximately, what I said:
Today we’re going to hear ten stories about 11 people who helped shape Australian food culture.
The first character I’d like you to meet is Edward Abbott – author of what’s generally agreed to be the first Australian cookbook – published in 1864.
This silhouette is as close as anyone has come to finding a picture of him.
Edward Abbott was born in Sydney in 1801 and travelled to Hobart with his parents in 1815. He became a newspaper proprietor, magistrate and politician and was famous for keeping a good table.
He despaired at the barbaric meals served by many of his compatriots, particularly, we gather from the introduction to his book, the preponderance of mutton. At the time, English cookbooks, including Mrs Beeton’s, were widely used in Australia. But Abbott said he was ‘desirous of some reform in the cuisine of some of my countrymen’s establishments’.
He used the pen name ‘An Australian Aristologist’, a term derived from the Greek word for dinner, ariston, and his book was called The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many, as well as for the “Upper Ten Thousand”.
Although his book borrowed many traditional English recipes, Abbott included colonial novelties like kangaroo, emu and even roast wombat. Of the wombat he wrote ‘Some persons like its flavour, others, again, decry it’. Perhaps the scariest recipe in the book is for Slippery Bob…and I will quote…
‘Take kangaroo brains, and mix with flour and water, and make a batter; well season with pepper, salt, and so on; then pour a tablespoon at a time into an iron pot containing emu fat, and take them out when done’.
He adds a comment calling this ‘“Bush fare” requiring a good appetite and excellent digestion’ and notes that the recipe was supplied by an ‘old hand’ of the area and most had never heard of it. There are other gems in here too, because the book has lots of anecdotes and observations as well as recipes. For example, this is what he has to say about soy sauce: ‘The vulgar idea is that this condiment is generally made in the East from pounded cockroaches, well spiced’.
A newspaper review at the time said of the book… ‘Enough has been said to indicate its value, and we recommend all good wives to invest 5s.6d. in its purchase forthwith’. Unfortunately, it seems the book failed to revolutionise Australian cooking. Mutton persisted for decades to come. Abbott died in 1869 and his obituary in the Tasmanian Times called him…‘a liberal patron of field sports and of the turf, and was noted at all times for his open hospitality and the excellence of his cuisine.’
Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond
Also in the 1860s, we meet two gentlemen who started a business together in Melbourne and went on to run the largest catering company in the world. Their names were Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond…and they were the caterers for the first Melbourne Cup, run on Thursday 7 November 1861.
There weren’t any picnics in the car park, but food was still an essential part of race day, with The Argus reporting that …‘The refreshment booths drove a thriving trade throughout the day, and the refreshment rooms of the grand stand, where Messrs. Spiers and Pond were the caterers, were also largely patronized and the good things of their providing met with general approval.’
Spiers and Pond were the Peter Rowlands of their day. Both were English born but they met in Melbourne and in 1851 set up a restaurant called The Shakespeare Grill Room at the Melbourne National Hotel, catering for gold miners. Their expertise was not in cooking, but in management and self-promotion; Spiers was an accountant while Pond was the front-of-house host.
In 1857 Spiers and Pond acquired the lease to the Café de Paris…most likely pronounced the Café de Pariss… at the Theatre Royale. This is how an account of the day described the restaurant:
‘Above the bars, and over the gateway you enter, is the Café de Paris, containing a salon, far superior in decoration and appointments to any I know of among the restaurants of London, and a coffee and smoking room fitted up with as much taste and elegance as you will meet in Paris…You may dine here in as much style as anywhere “at home,” and be served with a cut from a hot joint, just as at Simpson’s on the Strand.’
Catering for the Melbourne Cup was far from being the duo’s only project. They secured the contract to run refreshment rooms for the first Victorian government railways and catered for many other large-scale events.
Perhaps their most famous Australian venture was organising the first all-England cricket team to tour Australia in 1861. Apparently, the deal was done in a pub called the Hen and Chicken in Birmingham. Each English player was paid £150 plus first-class travel expenses.
Because these were professional cricketers and the Aussies were weekend amateurs they played what was called “against odds”, which meant that the English 11 was pitted against 18 or 22 Australian players. Despite this, England won nine out of the twelve matches and Spiers & Pond made a fortune from the tour.
Their success in ‘the colonies’ prompted Spiers and Pond to go on to bigger things. Returning to the UK in 1862, they pioneered railway catering in Britain and by 1873 they had refreshment rooms at over 100 railway stations on nine different railway lines. Soon their railway bars were selling 8,000 gallons of sherry each week and the duo went on to open restaurants and many hotels throughout England.
Spiers & Pond was well-known for hiring attractive barmaids. No lesser writer than Charles Dickens described the women in their employ as “bright-eyed, cheerfully obliging nymphs”, whose beauty helped to draw in male patrons, while another writer pointed out their “fine physiques”. And W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, also wrote a humorous verse titled Fanny and Jenny, pitting the virtues of Spiers and Pond against their rivals, Bertram and Roberts.
They were truly world-famous. At its height, Spiers and Pond employed more than 6000 people and were recognised, even in America, as the greatest caterers in the world….a success story that started here in Melbourne. The company continued under its original name long after Felix and Christopher passed away… until in 1957 it was acquired by a company called Chicken Inns and eventually merged into the Grand Metropolitan Hotel company.
I don’t have a picture of the next of our Australian food heroes. He was Greek. Athanassio Comino – later known as Arthur – arrived in Sydney from the Greek island of Kythera in 1873.
A myth has grown up around Arthur. Some recent newspaper articles have credited him with opening the first Australian fish and chip shop. This is wrong, but it’s probably true to say he opened the first Greek fish and chip shop.
The story goes that he was walking down Sydney’s Oxford Street when hunger drew him to a fish and chip shop operated by an unnamed Welshman. Fish and chips had been a thing in England since around 1860…so it’s no surprise that the idea had already been exported to New South Wales. Anyway, Athanassio thought it looked like a pretty easy way to make a living…easier than working as a miner, which is what he had been doing…so in 1878, started his own Oxford Street shop.
But that led to something much bigger. It started a chain migration, with many members of the Comino family and other people from their island migrating to Australia and joining the business…which expanded into a chain of fish shops and oyster bars…the so-called Comino empire that stretched throughout New South Wales and Queensland. When Athanassio died in 1897 his brother John took over and became known as the “Oyster King”.
There’s a family story, though, that the transition to oysters wasn’t entirely smooth. They knew about fish from their origins in a Greek fishing village. But they didn’t know much about oysters. It’s said that when the brothers first tried to sell deep-fried oysters dipped in batter, they battered them shell and all…to the bafflement of their customers.
Even in my youth, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the local fish and chip shop was likely to be run by a Greek family. And many of the oyster saloons and fish shops evolved into the Greek cafés that became social hubs for many a country town or city suburb through the first half of the 20th century.
Later on another Greek, Joachim Tavlaridis – who changed his name to Mick Adams – is credited with opening Australia’s first milk bar – the Black & White 4d Milk Bar – in Martin Place Sydney.
Another group of immigrants who had a lasting effect on our food culture is…of course…the Chinese….which brings us to our next food personality, Quong Tart.
He was born in Canton and came to the Braidwood gold fields with his uncle in the 1850s. He was nine at the time. His story is unusual in that he was given into the care of a Scottish family, the Simpsons, who raised him and taught him English. The boy acted as an interpreter between the Chinese miners and the owners of a large gold claim and Mr Simpson subsequently gave him an interest in a gold claim which made him wealthy.
Quong Tart became a British citizen in 1871 and moved to Sydney, where he married an English woman, Margaret Scarlett. He made several trips to China and began to import tea – a trade that led to his opening a chain of tea rooms in Sydney. But, except for the tea, Quong Tart’s tea rooms didn’t sell Chinese food. It was solid English fare like pork sausages, lamb cutlets, plum pudding and apple pie. His tea rooms were particularly famous for their scones.
The Quong Tart tea rooms also played a part in the feminist movement. Formerly, the city had no respectable gathering place for ladies (and no public toilets). The tea rooms provided a suitable meeting place (and powder rooms). Women flocked to the new establishments and Maybanke Anderson and her fellow suffragettes would regularly meet at the Loong Shan Tea Rooms in King Street.
Quong Tart’s wife wrote an account of his life, which paints him as a larger-than-life personality. Because of his upbringing, he spoke with a Scots accent and even quipped that he would answer to the name MacTart (or MacTartan, as one wag suggested). “He could sing Scotch songs with singular pathos, recite Burns’ poems with a genuine accent, play Scotch airs on the piano, and jokingly alluded to himself as being a native of Aberdeen,” she wrote.
Despite prevailing prejudice against the Chinese, Quong Tart became a leading businessman and figure of society and his tea rooms set new standards for quality and grandeur. In what may have been a robbery, Quong Tart was attacked in his office in 1902 and beaten over the head with an iron bar. He died the following year.
Starting in the gold rush days many Chinese immigrants began growing and selling fruit and vegetables and many opened cook shops and taverns. This is reputedly Australia’s first Chinese restaurant, run by John Alloo, on the goldfields at Ballarat, as pictured by the Melbourne artist S.T. Gill. You can see he had some difficulty with the Chinese characters. Chinese men even became shearers’ cooks and by 1890 around one-third of all cooks in Australia were Chinese.
Henry Madren Leggo
Our next story is about Leggo’s…so you might think we’re continuing our multicultural theme with the Italians.
In fact, Henry Madren Leggo was Cornish. The Leggo name is common around the town of Penzance in western Cornwall, the area where my ancestors come from as it happens. So although Leggo’s advertising says “Leggo’s is proud of its fine Italian traditions and has been a part of Australian cuisine since 1894’ those Italian traditions are a fairly recent invention.
Henry’s father was a Cornish miner who arrived during the gold rush and his mum, apparently, was a dab hand at making pickles and sauces…or so the legend goes. At this time, grocery distributors often made their own sauces and pickles and that’s how Henry Leggo got his start. In 1894 he bought the Bendigo grocery distribution and manufacturing business where he’d been working and, over the years, expanded the range.
As well as manufacturing vinegars, sauces, pickles, soups, cordials, jams and other grocery goods, Henry bought a coffee, tea and spice business. He later closed the coffee business to concentrate on condiments, preserves and canned foods. To be fair, tomato products were a significant part of his business. In 1925 and 1926, Leggo’s tomato sauces were awarded first, second and third prizes and Champion gold medals at the Bendigo Show.
Henry died in 1937 and in the 1950s the range was reduced, with a focus on pickles and a recent addition to the product mix: tomato paste. The Italian myth was in the making.
Then, in 1975, sultry Italian actress Gina Lollobrigida starred in advertising to launch Leggo’s new canned sauce range and the first Leggo’s Italian Cookbook was released using the line ‘the authentic Italian touch’. From that point, Australians seemed only too happy to believe that the name Leggo, ending in ‘o’ as it did, was Italian.
Abandoning recipes for cottage pie and chilli con carne, future advertising focused on Italian dishes. As more Italian sauces and tomato products joined the range, many of the old favourites disappeared. In the ’70s, there were five kinds of Leggo’s pickles and chutneys. Today, Leggo’s Sweet Mustard Pickles is the sole non-Italian survivor.
So now Leggo’s is a brand of Cornish origin, claiming an Italian heritage, owned by an American company, Simplot – and is an example of the power of advertising to re-write history.
When I first wrote about this on my website, I had an email from a descendant of the original Mr Leggo. This is what he wrote:
Thank you very much for writing that essay about HM Leggo & Co. I’m a distant relative who grew up in Bendigo in the 70’s when the advertising campaign first hit. Suddenly I was a Wog, Dago, Itie’ etc. All a bit hard to explain when you’re living in a country town populated by xenophobic mouth breathers…
It was NOT a pleasant experience and played a large part in my decision to move away from Bendigo when I was 19 …Thanks for setting the record straight.
Our next character does have a Hawthorn connection. You probably know about him: Joseph Fowler, who founded the Fowlers Vacola business.
Joseph had experience in fruit preserving before he arrived in Australia in 1913…his uncle had patented a system of bottling and preserving fruit in the UK. So soon after he arrived, Joseph set up a business from his home in Burke Road Camberwell selling his own preserves, as well as home-bottling kits. At first, he sold the kits from a cart…then, in 1920, he set up a shop on the corner of Power Street and Burwood Road in, yes, Hawthorn.
Originally it was just called J Fowler & Co…but in 1934 Fowlers Vacola Manufacturing Co. Ltd. was registered. Fowler’s kits became a household essential during the Great Depression when it was so important to be frugal with food.
A cartoon character, Mrs B Thrifty, advertised the system, and the instruction books included recipes for preserving everything from fresh and dried fruits and vegetables to meat, poultry, fish, sauces, fruit juices and cordials, soups and jams.
Perhaps less known than the preserving systems – which we’ve probably all had a go at – were Fowlers Vacola canned goods. During World War II they started to make tinned food for the military. This led to a new focus on selling canned and bottled food and the construction of a new factory in 1955.
As is obvious from his picture, Joseph Fowler became Mayor of Hawthorn. He was also Vice-President of Swinburne Technical College, a member of the Australian Defence League, a Rotarian and a warden of St John’s Anglican Church, Camberwell… a very public-spirited chap indeed.
Joseph died in 1972 and, shortly after, so did his son. After this, the company changed ownership several times, went into receivership and, in the 1990s, was acquired by an investment group. The Hawthorn factory was demolished in 2006.
But at least the name continues. Fowlers Vacola still sells preserving systems, although electric versions have replaced the old stove-top pan and Mrs B. Thrifty has gone to advertising heaven. Perhaps we’re not in quite the same rhapsodies over the product as this particular housewife, though.
Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp
Now this cheery chap was, despite his looks, quite a mover and shaker. His name is Harold Winthrop Clapp, later Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp, and in 1920 he became Chairman of the Victorian Railways. He was a very hands-on Chairman. As well as making technical reforms like extending the network and speeding up electrification he put a lot of focus on food.
From the earliest days of railway refreshment rooms, catering standards were, at best, variable. Harold decided to change that. He established the Refreshment Branch and took control of all catering on stations and trains. Soon the branch had its own butchery, bakery, laundry and poultry farm.
His view was that helping farmers would increase the railway’s freight business…so he worked with the Department of Agriculture to commission a Better Farming Train that toured Victoria in the mid-1920s to demonstrate farming best practice.
But Harold’s particular interest was in shipping fruit. So he started to promote it. He introduced fruit kiosks on stations and, nearly 100 years ahead of Boosy, started Australia’s first fresh fruit juice bar at Flinders Street Station. Five years later there were 27 such stalls on stations throughout Victoria. It became the biggest outlet for the state’s citrus growers.
When there was a glut of peaches Harold promoted “Peach week” which, as the glut continued, became “Peach fortnight”. He personally devised slogans…like “Citrus fruit is nature’s way To keep you fit for work and play” and “Everyday in Everyway…RAISINS”.
And Harold had a thing about raisin bread, to the delight of the Australian Dried Fruits Association. The railways’ own bakery began churning out loaves by the thousands and by 1925, they were selling 20 000 loaves of raisin bread a month. These were ‘hygienically wrapped’, the first wrapped bread to be sold in Victoria. Other bakers saw how successful this was as began making raisin bread too…and a new favourite dish was born.
So far, we haven’t heard much from the Italians, the REAL Italians, although there have been Italians in Australia since the first fleet, or even before, as there were two men of Italian descent on the Endeavour with Captain Cook.
We tend to think of Italian immigration happening mostly after World War II, but Italian immigration to Australia increased in the 1920s when America started to impose stringent quotas on the number of Italian immigrants.
In Melbourne, in the 1920s and ‘30s, guys with names like Triaca, Codognotto, Vigano and Molina founded some of the city’s iconic restaurants. But I’ve fixed on Rinaldo Massoni for today’s talk because the restaurant he started, the Florentino, is still going and still under the control of an Italian family through Guy Grossi.
Rinaldo Massoni arrived in Melbourne in 1911 from Lucca, a town to the west of Florence in Italy. Initially, he was a surgical instrument maker, but he married into a family with food and wine connections and in 1926 opened the Café Latin in Exhibition Street with Camillo Triaca, a friend from his home town.
In 1928 Samuel Wynn approached Rinaldo to take over his Café Denat, which was operating as a wine shop in Bourke Street. They changed the name to the Café Florentino and the rest is history. After Rinaldo died his son Leon took over and ran the restaurant – and the Cellar Bar and the Bistro Grill – with George Tsindos until 1963.
Rinaldo also installed the first commercial espresso machine in Australia, or so I was informed by his grandson Peter. On my website, I’d written that the first espresso machine was actually installed by the Greek owner of Patricia’s cafe in Sydney in 1948, but I received an indignant email protesting that I’d got it wrong.
This is what Peter wrote:
The first commercial expresso [sic] machine was installed in the Cafe Florentino, Burke Street Melbourne by my grandfather Rinaldo Massoni in 1928. Patrons were delighted as this large machine hissed, plumed, gushed streams of aromatic coffee and promptly drank copious amounts of this delicious liquid. Any other claim in this regard is pure southern matter dropped from a northbound bull.
Well…the Italians are passionate about family, after all. (In fact, the machine installed by Massoni was not a modern, lever-operated espresso machine – hence the confusion. The Pavoni machines passed steam through the coffee and operated differently from the machines we know today. The espresso machine as we know it was invented by Achille Gaggia after World War II.)
Now let’s jump to the 1950s – and Australia’s first TV chef. This is Willi Koeppen. He was born in Berlin, migrated to Australia in 1956, and was Executive Chef at the Chevron Hotel, then regarded as a five-star establishment.
His program, The Chef Presents was possibly Australia’s earliest TV cooking program. Of course, TV arrived in 1956, just in time for the Melbourne Olympics. Willi’s program aired on Melbourne’s HSV-7 from 1957 to 1959 as a five-minute segment leading into the news and was later expanded to 15 minutes and broadcast in various time slots.
During this time, it seemed he was retained by Heinz to do some promotion. We found this picture when we were researching illustrations for the book and this photograph shows him posed behind a cardboard cut-out television screen holding up a jar of Heinz salad cream.
(As an aside, Heinz did some pretty weird promotions back then. In 1956, when the movie On the Beach was being shot in Melbourne, the city went On the Beach mad. So Heinz came up with this. Yes, canned food for the end of the world. That should sell.)
But I digress.
Willi met his wife, Karin, at an Olympics party and together they bought the Quamby café in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. They lived in the basement while they turned the old café into The Cuckoo, Australia’s first smorgasbord restaurant. Soon after that, Willi’s television career came to an end. The restaurant, however, flourished and I guess a few of us went there. With checked tablecloths, candles in bottles and, of course, ashtrays on every table it was the epitome of continental kitsch.
The Cuckoo continues to this day with its smorgasbord, cuckoo clocks, yodelling and folk dancing by girls in dirndls and guys in leather shorts. But Willi’s story ended in mystery. In 1976, he disappeared.
By then he was 46 and the father of three. He closed the restaurant one night, visited a nearby friend, then vanished. His Volkswagen Kombi van was found the next day parked at the restaurant in its usual spot with the keys in the ignition and the doors wide open. Although no clue has been found to help solve the mystery, he was almost certainly murdered.
Suspicion has fallen on an underworld figure who, years later, was himself murdered in gaol. But despite renewed police enquiries in 2012, it seems likely that the disappearance of Australia’s first TV chef is a puzzle that will never be solved.
You’ve probably noticed that all the people we’ve met so far have been male. So, for a bit of gender balance, here’s a woman.
Betty King, Home Economist, of World Brands Pty Ltd was one of the leading ladies of Australian cookery – the Margaret Fulton of her day. Unfortunately, she didn’t exist. She was no more than a figment of some marketing executive’s imagination…no doubt inspired by the equally fictional Betty Crocker in America.
Betty King, a ‘leading home economist’, first appeared in Australian women’s magazines in 1950 promoting Mello Chocolate Dessert. She personalised this new chocolate pudding in a packet by providing recipes on each pack and hints on serving and decorating each of the three flavours. But Betty King didn’t just spruik instant desserts.
She also introduced Australians to a new Melt’n’Mix method of cake making using Copha, a coconut fat made only in Australia and one of the principal ingredients of Chocolate Crackles.
She also gave her ‘expert’ endorsement to, among other products, Continental packet soups, Lipton’s tea, Puffin Multi-Mix baking mix and Deb Instant Mashed Potatoes. Betty King also advertised her ‘staff of experts’ and her ‘professional kitchen’ where she developed new recipes, simplified time-wasting techniques, and accumulated knowledge that would benefit the housewife and her family.
She even had a column in the Australian Women’s Weekly and invited women to connect with her by writing in for recipes for special occasions and for information and hints or if something went wrong.
And it seems people believed in her; she even aged and changed her hairstyle over time. Proof of her credibility was offered to her readers by references in the column to the ‘constant stream of letters that pour in from every city and country district’.
You couldn’t do it today – inventing a totally fictional expert and pretending that she would personally answer your questions might just run afoul of Trade Practices legislation. Not surprisingly, Betty King disappeared in the early ‘60s, as have some of the brands she promoted and the company she represented.
But she was a product of the times. Her role was to help women create quick interesting, easy, tasty meals for their families and to support their creative endeavours and their busy lives. And in the 1960 Housewife’s Day survey, it was found that women in Melbourne spent an average of 4.5 hours each day around food preparation. No wonder the quick and easy methods Betty promoted were, at least at the time, so successful.
I haven’t even tried to include any modern-day personalities in this lineup. There are just too many – celebrity chefs, television chefs, Masterchef winners, Masterchef runners-up. We’ve all heard of Stephanie and Maggie and Tetsuya. And then there are the overseas figures: Jamie, Nigella – we’re on first-name terms.
It seems we’re all food crazy. In 1996, the term ‘Modern Australian’ first appeared in the Good Food Guides. It signalled the start of a distinctive way of cooking that incorporates food influences from all over the world.
Still, in mid-2011, after five series of Masterchef, a survey conducted by the Westfield group found that 84 per cent of Australians didn’t know how to boil an egg. They also found that more than half the people they talked to cooked no more than five different meals – and a quarter cooked only three. Traditional meat and veg was the most popular, followed by stir fry and that great Australian classic – spaghetti Bolognese.
At least there’s some evidence of multiculturalism there.